This post reviews the rifle barrels the best precision rifle shooters were using in 2014. The data is based on a survey of the top 50 shooters in the Precision Rifle Series (PRS). The PRS tracks how top competitors place in major rifle matches across the country. These are the major leagues of sniper-style competitions, with targets typically in the 300-1000 yard range. This is the 3rd year we’ve collected this data. For more info on the Precision Rifle Series and who these guys are scroll to the bottom of this article.
So here is the list of the most popular match-grade barrels among this group of elite precision riflemen. It includes how each of those performed in previous years as well.
Bartlein Barrels continued its winning streak in 2014. This year 30 out of the top 50 shooters were running Bartlein barrels. It takes the next 3 brands combined to just equal half as many as Bartlein had! They had over 3 times as many barrels represented as any other brand.
Benchmark Barrels made the jump from #4 in last year’s results to #2 in 2014. There were 9 shooters sporting Benchmark barrels among the top 50 shooters this year, which was a 250% increase from last year. There were several different gunsmiths represented within that number, which indicates that confidence in Benchmark Barrels is fairly widespread among precision gunsmiths.
Hawk Hill Customs made its debut onto this list in 2014 at #3, with four shooters using their barrels.
Krieger Barrels was a surprise at #4. In 2012, Krieger represented over 40% of the top competitors in the PRS, and that was cut in half in 2013 with just 19%, and that was cut in half again this year at just 6%. That means there was only 3 shooters who finished in the top 50 that said they were running a Krieger barrel. That is a surprising trend. Both Krieger and Bartlein started with approximately the same representation among these guys in 2012, but the stories obviously have diverged since then.
After those guys, a few other outstanding barrel manufacturers had 1 shooter represented within the top 50 PRS competitors in 2014:
Rifle Barrel Contours
This year I added a question to the survey asking about what barrel contour each shooter was using. Here are your results:
You can see there were a lot of guys running Medium Palma and Heavy Palma contours. In fact, those two combined to represent just over 50% of the competitors.
Behind that were the super-heavy MTU and M24 contours, which have very similar dimensions. Those combined to represent around 30% of the top 50 shooters.
Behind those, there were four shooters running a Heavy Varmint contour, which has an even longer area on the shank before it starts to taper.
Then there were a couple shooters using other contours:
- Desert Tech DTA Contour – The DTA SRS-A1 rifle has a proprietary switch-barrel design, which is pretty innovative. It’s one of the reasons they can maintain 1/2 MOA accuracy across so many calibers. Essentially the receiver securely clamps around the first six inches of the barrel. So the DTA contour has a whopping 1.75” diameter at the clamping area, 1” at the front of the chamber, and then it tapers to 0.875” at the muzzle. Their barrels are 26”, although they also offer some that are shorter.
- Remington Varmint – This contour is also commonly referred to as a Sendero contour. This appears to be the only Sporter contour barrel used by these guys. Most prefer either the Palma contour or the straight taper of a Match/Target contour, over the swooping curved taper of a Sporter barrel.
- Douglas #7 – There was also one shooter using a Douglas #7 contour, which is a little different than all the rest listed here. I believe it is similar to a Light Varmint contour, with a 1.2” diameter at the chamber and a target taper to 0.875” at the muzzle. However, it is only 3” before it starts to taper on the shank, where the Light Varmint contour is typically 5” before it tapers.
However, if you just look at the shooters who ended up in the top 20, you can see the top shooters were clearly preferred heavier barrels, which both Heavy Palma and MTU barrels being the most popular. 66% of the shooters surveyed who knew their barrel contour were using either a Heavy Palma or MTU barrel.
What is interesting is although there were more people running Medium Palma barrels than any other, only 15% of those ended up in the top 20. Compare that with the fact that 67% (6 of 9) of the shooters running an MTU barrel ended up in the top 20! Heavy Palma also had a good representation, with 50% (6 of 12) of the shooters running a Heavy Palma ending up in the top 20.
There is certainly a question about whether that is correlation or causation, which essentially is just saying did those shooters place higher because they were using heavier barrels … or did the best shooters happen to be using heavier barrels. You’d likely need random sampling and a larger sample size to be able to answer that definitively, so I’ll leave it up to you guys to debate. Regardless of how much it impacted the results, one thing is undeniable: in 2014 the best precision rifle shooters in the country are choosing Heavy Palma and MTU barrels.
Note: Although most of the contours dimensions are the same among all the manufacturers, that might not always be the case. The contours shown are for Bartlein barrels. I did notice the cylinder section at the breech of the Palma Contours varied some for the Krieger barrels (Krieger’s was 1/2″ shorter than what is shown here). There may be other minor variances among manufacturers.
Rifle Barrel Length
Another question I asked on the 2014 year-end survey is what barrel length each shooter was running. They were all between 22 and 28 inches, with the lions share at 26 inches.
About 3 out of every 5 shooters were using a 26 inch barrel. Then 1 out of 5 shooters was using a 24 inch barrel, and the other 1 out of 5 was an outlier with a more exotic barrel length (essentially anything but 24 or 26).
But as I was looking at this data, I thought it might be more helpful to look at the most popular barrel lengths by cartridge, and not just overall. So here are the most popular cartridges used by these shooters, along with the number of barrels used for each one. To learn more about the most popular cartridges, check out the first post in this series, which is focused on that topic.
You can see in the chart above that 26” barrels seem to be pretty popular, regardless of the cartridge. There are only a couple cartridges that were more evenly split among different lengths. One interesting thing I noticed was that out of the 6 shooters running a 6×47 Lapua, none of them were using a 26 inch barrel. That was the only one of these cartridges where a 26” barrel wasn’t one of the most popular choices. However, that is a small sample size and shouldn’t be seen as a consensus that a 26” barrel wouldn’t work well for that cartridge.
Okay, I also wanted some hard data on a historically heated topic: Where these guys running a fluted barrel or did they opt for no flutes?
You can see the results are staggering. I definitely didn’t expect this crowd to be so one-sided on this point. Only one guy out of the top 50 competitors for the 2014 Precision Rifle Series said he was running a fluted barrel on his rifle. Wow.
One of the guys represented here told me he just doesn’t flute the barrel because he goes through them so quickly that it seems like a waste of time and money. These guys practice … a lot. You don’t get to this level any other way. So their rifles may see more rounds in one month than most rifles do in a lifetime. So at least one of the shooter’s decision didn’t have anything to do with whether fluting affected accuracy or not, but that may not be representative of the majority.
There are some people in the shooting community that do believe fluting affects a barrel’s accuracy in a negative way. In fact, Shilen Barrels refuses to flute their barrels. Here is what they say on the topic:
Fluting is a service we neither offer nor recommend. If you have a Shilen barrel fluted, the warranty is void. Fluting a barrel can induce unrecoverable stresses that will encourage warping when heated and can also swell the bore dimensions, causing loose spots in the bore. A solid (un-fluted) barrel is more rigid than a fluted barrel of equal diameter. A fluted barrel is more rigid than a solid barrel of equal weight. All rifle barrels flex when fired. Accuracy requires that they simply flex the same and return the same each time they are fired, hence the requirement for a pillar bedded action and free floating barrel. The unrecoverable stresses that fluting can induce will cause the barrel to flex differently or not return from the flexing without cooling down a major amount. This is usually longer than a shooter has to wait for the next shot. The claim of the flutes helping to wick heat away faster is true, but the benefit of the flutes is not recognizable in this regard until the barrel is already too hot.
Several months ago, I asked Shilen for any data they have to support these claims, but they never responded. So this smells like it could just be a strong opinion and theory, and may not be backed by any empirical data they’ve gathered.
But an article written by Tom Beckstrand in the 2013 edition of SNIPER magazine summarizes some tests that Accuracy International performed to determine whether fluting a barrel affected accuracy. Here is an excerpt from that article:
One design change that resulted from AI’s exhaustive accuracy testing and development of the PSR [Precision Sniper Rifle] is the removal of flutes from the barrels. Engineers at AI decided to isolate the barrel flutes to see what impact they had on accuracy. The engineers attached a laser to the rifle’s receiver, another to the barrel, and a third to the scope. All three dots were zeroed at the same point, then they started shooting the rifle. They discovered that, no matter which fluted barrel they used, the dots would diverge as the barrel heated. The dots from the devices mounted to the scope and the receiver would stay in place, but the barrel’s device would manifest a point-of-impact (POI) shift. The POI shift from the warming barrel greatly diminished when they used barrels without flutes.
Engineers determined that the flutes never heated evenly, causing the POI shift. I hope the results of this test gain wide circulation through the sniper and long-range shooting communities to help eliminate some of the ignorance that surrounds the perceived advantages of barrel flutes. Flutes are great for shaving weight, but this is the first test I’ve heard that provided empirical data detailing what happens when the barrel is fluted. This should be the death of the “they cool a barrel faster, so they’re more accurate” argument, listed among flutes’ virtues. Our goal is and should always be to mitigate the effects of heat; fluting exacerbates it.
The AI study seems like pretty convincing evidence. Once again, I requested research data from Accuracy International related to these tests, and have yet to see anything. That’s too bad. I’d like to see the data before I can have full confidence in that it was applicable across the board (regardless of rifling method, flute depth, number of flutes, length of flutes, barrel contour, etc).
Although these points are just one side to the argument, what is clear is the best precision rifle shooters in the country are not fluting their barrels (at least 98% of them). This is the first time I’ve seen clear results like this representing such a large sample size of elite shooters, and the results seem clear and compelling. But I’m sure the debate will rage on!
Meet The Pros
You know NASCAR? Yes, I’m talking about the racing-cars-in-a-circle NASCAR. Before NASCAR, there were just a bunch of unaffiliated, regional car races. NASCAR brought structure by unifying those races, and created the idea of a season … and an overall champion. NASCAR identified the top races across the country (that were similar in nature), then combined results and ranked competitors. The Precision Rifle Series (PRS) is like NASCAR, but for rifle matches.
The PRS is a championship style point series race based on the best precision rifle matches nationwide. PRS matches are recognized as the major league of sniper-style rifle matches. At the end of each year, the scores from around 15 different national matches are evaluated and the top shooters are invited to compete head to head in the PRS Season Championship Match. We surveyed the shooters who qualified for the finale, asking all kinds of questions about the equipment they ran that season. This is a great set of data, because 50+ shooters is a significant sample size, and this particular group are also considered experts among experts. It includes guys like George Gardner (President/Senior Rifle Builder of GA Precision), Francis Kuehl, Wade Stuteville, the GAP Team, the Surgeon Rifles Team, shooters from the US Army Marksmenship Unit, and many other world-class shooters. Thanks to Rich Emmons for allowing me to share this info. To find out more about the PRS, check out What Is The Precision Rifle Series?
Other “What The Pros Use” Articles
This post was one of a series of posts that look at the equipment the top PRS shooters use. Check out these other posts:
- Calibers & Cartridges
- Tactical Scopes
- Scope Mount
- Rifle Actions
- Rifle Barrels
- Custom Rifle Stocks
- Reloading Components (Bullets, Powders & Brass)
- Muzzle Brake & Suppressor
- Shooting Bags
- Rifle Sling